The immigration crisis at the border with Mexico has struck a chord in the Bay Area’s Japanese American community, many of whom know someone who was sent to an incarceration camp during World War II — or are survivors themselves.
Libia Yamamoto clearly recalls the day her father was taken from their hacienda in Peru. “We went to the police station. There was a small group of men standing together. I asked my mother, ‘Where is he going?’ She said, ‘I don’t know.’ I asked, ‘When’s he coming back?’ She said, ‘I don’t know.’’’
Her voice cracks as she tells the tale to a rapt audience of about 80 Japanese Americans in a conference room in Emeryville on June 2. The people assembled here are members of the Crystal City Pilgrimage Committee, a group of survivors, and relatives of survivors, of the camps.
“All we could do was wave,” Yamamoto continues, as a few listeners start to cry. “I was very close to my father. I wanted to run to him and hug him. But it wasn’t allowed.”
Her presentation was part of a “ReportBack” from the group to talk about a trip many took to the site of a former camp in Crystal City, Texas — and a protest they mounted in front of the Dilley Detention Center 40 minutes away.
A green sign on a table made their position clear. “Detention Camps — Wrong in 1942 and Wrong Today!”
Organizer Grace Shimuzu listed the parallels: “The surveillance, people being profiled, snatched up, disappeared, put into camps or facilities for an indefinite period of time without being charged, facing deportation.”
Hosts wore black T-shirts with red words emblazoned: #Stop Repeating History! And white words below them: Never Again is Now!
Three-fold displays stood on tables against the wall like a science fair, with information and hand-drawn signs: “Japanese Americans Say No More Kids in Cages” and “Japanese Americans Say No More Detention Based on Race.”
CCPC brought 60 people on the pilgrimage and protest in March. They hope to bring 250 back in November. The June 2 meeting in Emeryville was part reflection, part reportage, and part rallying call for the next trip.
“This is our moment. We have to do something about what’s happening in this country under this system,” said Peggy Saika, who’s in charge of fundraising for items the group will give to immigrants being released.
Emiko Omori filmed the trip, including an emotional meeting with Rep. Gene Wu, one of few Asians in the Texas State Legislature.
“Japanese Americans are outraged this is happening again and human beings can be treated this way,” he said. “It means a lot to me that you’re here, because it’s when nobody speaks … that’s when democracy dies.
“Thank you for being here fighting for people that have no voice — to be the voices that weren’t heard when we were taken away.”
Chinese Panamaniam Rebecca Fong went along as an ally and Spanish translator. “We arrived in a bus and stayed out front. The government wouldn’t let us inside,” she said.
“We played Taiko drums — hopefully loud enough that the people inside could hear it. Probably the most emotional moment was hanging the tsuru (long strings of origami cranes) on the fence.”
Before leaving, the group called out via Instagram’s @tsuruforsolidarity for supporters to send them 10,000 cranes — the number needed by legend to grant a wish. They received 25,000, including many from prisoners at San Quentin.
“The tsuru represented the sentiments of Nikkei across the country in terms of standing for justice and supporting families that are being detained,” organizer Joyce Nakamura said.
Artist Nancy Ukai elaborated in an email: “@tsuruforsolidarity is an independent project that is now planning an action in Washington DC in 2020. The goal is to collect 125,000 origami cranes, one for each imprisoned person in the WW2 camps, and take them to the capitol.”
Speaker Hiroshi Shimizu may have had the most experience in camps. He was born in Topaz and spent three years in Tule Lake before being transferred to Crystal City. March’s trip was “my first return since we left in 1947, two years after the war had ended. My parents renounced the United States at Tule Lake, and the government didn’t want to release us,” he said.
Emily Murase came because her father-in-law had been incarcerated at about age 20. He left to serve in the U.S. military while his family stayed behind in Crystal City. “He was there when a group of Japanese Latin Americans arrived, who were literally kidnapped off the street and brought with nothing,” Murase said.
That’s what happened to speaker Kaz Naganuma, whose family was taken near Lima, Peru. “We were stripped naked, sprayed and fumigated, put on a train. We didn’t know where we were going. I really don’t know how my parents made it through that experience,” he told the crowd.
“We were there (in Crystal City) for three and a half years. After we came out was the hardest time for most of us. We were penniless and didn’t speak English. We spoke Spanish and Japanese. We were lucky to get a place to live in Japantown (in San Francisco).”
Although many are aware of the 10 War Relocation Authority camps where Japanese Americans from the West Coast were incarcerated during WWII, fewer know about the more than 50 Enemy Alien camps run by the Department of Justice and the U.S. Army, which held Germans, Japanese Americans, and Japanese Latin Americans. Crystal City was one of those.
John Ota staffed the registration table at the June 2 meeting, and volunteers as a docent at “Then They Came For Me,” a free exhibit in The Presidio about Japanese American incarceration that combines black-and-white photography by Dorothea Lange, Ansel Adams and others, including Bay Area-born Paul Kitigaki Jr., along with artifacts from the camps, scholarship on the era, and examples of racist media from the time.
“What’s happening at the border is a moral atrocity and we need to speak out,” Ota said. “Very few people spoke out when our families were rounded up and incarcerated in WWII, and we don’t want to allow the government to get away with this without widespread condemnation and protests.”
Originally planned to close in May, the free exhibit at Futures Without Violence, at 100 Montgomery alongside the Main Post Lawn in The Presidio, has been extended through Sept. 1, where it’s open to the public 10 a.m.- 6 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday. For more information about the upcoming pilgrimage and protest, contact the Friends of Crystal City Facebook page.